The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) is the first jurisdiction in Australia to in law that animals are sentient and have intrinsic value. The Animal Sentience Act applies to all vertebrate species (including wildlife and fish) and cephalopods (octopus etc) and some crustaceans.

While Australia’s national and state legislation already recognised some components of sentience like the capacity to feel pain, there is no recognition of positive feelings and levels of awareness or consciousness included in the legislation. The ACT now joins New Zealand, the European Union and Canada in expressly recognising animal sentience and that animals have a right to both, mental and physical well-being.

The ACT Amendment Bill specifically refers to animal welfare as “all aspects of animal health and well-being” stating that “all people have a responsibility to take reasonable measures to protect the welfare of animals in all human-animal interactions.” In doing so, it effectively changes the legal status of animals from being purely ‘property’ to sentient beings in their own right. It also acknowledges that an animal can be physically healthy, but mentally suffering.

Although the ACT’s Animal Welfare Act is still anchored on the Five Freedoms of animal welfare, the Amendment Bill reflects the evolution of animal welfare knowledge and community expectations towards a Five Domains-based model of welfare assessment and monitoring. As reflected in the Horses and People Horse Welfare Assessment Guide, the Five Domains model raises the bar from care to providing opportunities to experience positive emotions.

In an interview, Professor Emeritus David Mellor, the architect of the Five Domains model, said: “Specifically acknowledging sentience is a really useful thing, because it acknowledges what animal welfare scientists implicitly and explicitly have been thinking for three or four decades.

While the legislative changes are quite recent and we animal welfare scientists have been doing quite well without them up to this point, I think it is an important step to take.

Especially today, because it formally puts a stake in the ground to say that animals are not merely commodities; they are beings that can often have really negative experiences and, if given the opportunity, can also have really positive experiences.

This legislative recognition of sentience now demands that we keep this in mind when we are going to use animals for our own purposes.”

The Amendment Bill will also strengthen the ability to enforce breaches of animal welfare and expands the opportunities to work with animal rescue organisations.

Click here to read the explanatory statement (and Government amendments).

Click here to see how Australia ranks in terms of its commitments towards animal welfare.

Click here to receive a free download of the Horse Welfare Assessment Guide.

Click here to read an interview with Professor Emeritus David Mellor, the architect of the Five Domains Model of Welfare Assessment and Monitoring.